The sleepy town of Hannibal, Mo., braces itself for a deluge of Twain devotees inspired by a forthcoming Ken Burns documentary.

By King Kaufman

Published October 25, 2001 6:13PM (EDT)

I found myself wandering alone on a nearly deserted Main Street one recent weekday, admiring the stout brick buildings and enjoying the afternoon heat of the Mississippi Valley.

It was on this very street 156 years ago that Hannibal saw its first murder, the victim falling just over there, in front of Grant's Drug Store. Dr. Grant ordered him dragged inside, and the poor man, Sam Smarr, lay on the floor, blood rushing from bullet holes in his chest, struggling for breath against the weight of a heavy Bible that had been placed over his wounds. The Bible quickly won that struggle, you might say.

One of the gawking townspeople who watched Sam Smarr die was a 9-year-old boy named Sam Clemens, who would not only have nightmares about what he saw for the rest of his life but would re-create the scene in a book he wrote called "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," with Smarr transformed into the town drunk, Boggs -- a slander, no doubt, but one that any of us should be so lucky to suffer.

The street was nearly deserted when I wandered it because it was the lull between summer vacation season and Labor Day weekend. But it won't be long before these streets will be filled with picnickers marching from museum to historical sight to riverboat to antique shoppe, because while many a small river city can match Hannibal for its quaintness, its history, its friendliness and its ready supply of delicious, reasonably priced chicken fingers, there's not one that can compete in the native-son business. Hannibal holds up Mark Twain and all the others, from St. Paul to Natchez, pack up and leave the field.

Florida, Mo., about an hour west by car, a river town but not a Mississippi River town, can one-up Hannibal by pointing to itself as Clemens' birthplace. The future Mr. Twain didn't reach Hannibal until he was 4. But Florida doesn't really exist anymore. Twain wrote that when he was born the town had 100 people, "and I increased the population by one per cent. It is more than the best man in history ever did for any other town." Today a birth would increase the population by 33 percent. And anyway the museum that holds the house he was born in stands in a town called Stoutsville.

So it's to Hannibal that the people will come next spring because they will have watched "Mark Twain" on television in January. "Mark Twain" is a two-part, four-hour documentary by Ken Burns, a much-decorated documentary filmmaker and surrogate vacation planner for a wide variety of Americans. We watched "Civil War" and marched to battle sites, and we'll watch "Mark Twain" and head to Hannibal. Missouri tourism has already benefited from another Burns picture, "Lewis & Clark."

"Our visitation did go up several thousand in 1991," after "Civil War," says Tim Smith of the Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee. "It was a dramatic rise." Smith says the park, which preserves the scene of the first major western battle of the Civil War in 1862, saw attendance rise about 40 percent to 112,000 in 1991. A brief survey of other Civil War sites turned up similar answers.

"I'm on a Mark Twain high here because I think it's absolutely wonderful," says Ila Woollen, the marketing director and volunteer coordinator for the Mark Twain Boyhood Home in Hannibal. "It can only have a positive impact on us."

The anticipated tourist wave couldn't come at a better time for "America's Hometown." Bed tax revenues were up 3 percent in 1997 and '99, 10 percent in '98 (the year after "Lewis & Clark"). But they were even last year, and Woollen said she'd heard tourist revenue was off 2 percent this year even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which had a disastrous effect on the tourist industry in general. Travel industry watchers say that Americans are already showing an inclination to abandon plans to fly overseas, choosing instead to vacation within their own national borders.

In an e-mail recently, Faye Bleigh, executive director of the Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau, wrote, "The effects of Sept. 11 are probably the same here as most other small Midwest towns. We've heard some skepticism about travel plans. We saw a drop in numbers for about two weeks after, but things have returned to near normal."

Henry Sweets, director of the Boyhood Home and Museum, says he expects a "tremendous" number of people to watch the movie. "I would certainly anticipate that this would translate into people being willing to get into vehicles and go to those sites to tour them, so we certainly would hope to see an increase in our attendance next year," he says. "It's next to impossible to guess what kind of numbers that would translate into, but as we go back historically and look at major productions on Mark Twain that have come out, we can see a rise in attendance following those."

Woollen and others say the tourist season falls into three sections in Hannibal: school groups in the spring, families in the summer, seniors in motor coach groups in the fall.

"In November it's like they close the doors to Hannibal," Woollen says, though this year they won't close them before Ken Burns comes to visit on Nov. 10.

"He plans to show Hannibal folks that part of the documentary which was filmed in Hannibal," Bleigh says.

Hannibal will thaw and those doors will open up again, and the hordes will come. They'll crowd into the Boyhood Home, a two-story white-frame rectangle on Hill Street, two blocks from the levee, where they'll push little red buttons on the walls and hear Sweets explaining in his precise, careful manner what they're looking at.

After gazing at, no kidding, the whitewashed fence next to the house, they'll move along through a museum and gift shop to the Clemens Law Office across the street, where young Sam's father was justice of the peace; to the Pilaster House, where the family lived for a while during hard financial times; to "Becky Thatcher's" house, where Laura Frazier, the model for that character, grew up; and to Grant's Drug Store, where Mr. Smarr's body has long since been dragged away, but an interesting display of period medicines and doctor's implements remains.

They also might visit Rockcliffe Mansion, a well-known attraction unconnected to Twain, though he did visit there, or the birthplace of Margaret Tobin. A popular legend holds that when young Maggie was working as a waitress at a local hotel, Twain, dining there, advised her to go west to Colorado and marry a rich man, which she did. And that was just the first of her adventures, as you'd know if you ever saw "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

And then -- perhaps after some knickknack shopping, a ride on the side-wheeler Mark Twain, a visit to the Mark Twain Cave and maybe a low-fat decaf triple mocha at the friendly but slightly out of place Java Jive on Main -- they'll pour into the New Mark Twain Museum, where they'll spend several days reading and discussing Twain esoterica and enjoying interactive displays revolving around his books.

Well, maybe not several days.

"One has to consider that a person coming to visit the Mark Twain Museum has probably budgeted a certain amount of time that they're comfortable in spending at the museum," Sweets says. That might be an hour and a half for the casual, non-scholar tourist. "We have to just hit high points and try to provide material for the visitor who wants to go beyond that."

At the moment, there are displays having to do with "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Roughing It" and Twain's other writings on the West. By next spring -- a happy accident of timing, Sweets says -- there will be three new displays, on "Life on the Mississippi," "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" and "The Innocents Abroad."

The idea is to use the limited space -- the new museum, two blocks down the street from the tiny original museum, is still only a modest, two-story storefront -- to show that Twain wrote more than just pastoral tales of his Mississippi River youth. "We think as they come through, most of the visitors have heard of 'Tom Sawyer' and heard of 'Huckleberry Finn,' whether or not they've read them," Sweets says. "When they reach 'Life on the Mississippi,' again, I think they're familiar with the title of the book. For the three other books, I think we're exposing them to writings that the average visitor will not be that familiar with, and our goal is to try to show this breadth of Mark Twain's writing."

It's an admirable goal, and the museum does nice work. But in an ordinary year, it wouldn't be enough to convince the kids to go along with Dad's big idea for a lit vacation.

"The [vacation] choices now have just escalated," says Bleigh. "We always went to the Lake of the Ozarks every year when I was a little girl." Now there are theme parks all over, and Hannibal doesn't play in that arena. "We don't have any big theme parks here, and how many kids -- even the kids around here, they want to go to Six Flags."

But can theme parks compete with one of the Elle 25? That magazine's September issue presented an "'it' list of the most important movers and shakers lighting up the cultural landscape this fall," and who should be at No. 9, right between Jennifer Lopez and the for-some-reason teamed-up Ethan Hawke and Matt Dillon but Hannibal's own white-suited hero, Samuel Clemens.

"There's a veritable levee-break of Twainiana headed our way," the magazine says, citing the Burns special and a tie-in biography, as well as publication of the lost short story "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage" and a new "Annotated Huckleberry Finn" made possible by the discovery of what had been the lost half of the original manuscript.

"With Twain back on the scene," Elle asks, "who needs Oprah?"

Certainly not Vicki Lewis, for 11 years the proprietor of Pudd'n'heads, a shop selling crafts by local artists just off Main Street. She and her fellow merchants also stand to benefit from "Mark Twain."

"Summer has been OK," she said just before the terrorist attacks. "Not great but OK. All the years I've had this before, it was up, but this year it was flat." Even before the terror attacks and the American military response, she was quite ready, thank you, for a spring rush.

In "The Innocents Abroad," Twain wrote that in the month before his ship sailed for Europe and the Holy Lands he "basked in the happiness of being for once in my life drifting with the tide of a great popular movement. Everybody was going to Europe -- I, too, was going to Europe." He tells of a friend buying a handkerchief in a store in New York. When the shopkeeper can't make change, the man says not to worry, they'll settle accounts when they see each other in Paris. The shopkeeper protests that he's not going to Paris but is in fact staying at home the entire summer, and Twain's friend can't believe it. "It was a lie -- that is my opinion of it!" he tells Twain after they've left the store.

I've found myself in that same situation. I've already run into several people who have no plans to go to Hannibal next year, and I attribute that to their not yet having seen the documentary.

"From time to time events happen that bring Mark Twain further into the fore," Sweets says. "He never really goes too far behind it, but looking at the new edition of 'Huckleberry Finn' that is now out since the rest of the text has been found, the Ken Burns production, other specials that we see coming and going about Mark Twain, I'd say we're certainly on one of the peaks right now. But a few years from now the valley won't be that deep. Mark Twain just keeps moving along, keeps sitting there as the preeminent American author."

On my visit to Hannibal I wandered past the statue of Tom and Huck and up a long stairway that winds up Cardiff Hill, which Tom, Huck and their friends, residents of a Hannibal that had been renamed St. Petersburg, played on. It leads to the Mark Twain Lighthouse, which overlooks the river. No other lighthouse in the world is farther inland. It was built as a tribute to Twain on his centennial and has never been used as a navigation aid.

At the lighthouse I met a woman who was visiting from Southern California. She said her first-grade teacher read "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" to the class, and she's had a soft spot for Twain ever since. "Being here now kind of gets the heart beating," she said. My heart was beating too. I had attributed that to my sorry physical condition and that endless stairway, vowing to hit the gym when I returned home. But following her lead, I concluded that I'd been moved by some deep connection to my own Southern California roots, and the three reasonably happy years I spent at Mark Twain Junior High School.

This woman had beaten the tourist rush. She didn't need Ken Burns to tell her to come to Hannibal. I headed back down the hill and thought about something Henry Sweets had said.

"The people who come, come for about every reason you can think of," he'd said. "We have Mark Twain scholars who come through that are making a pilgrimage to Hannibal. We have many teachers who come through that teach Mark Twain and are interested in getting more information and a better feel before going back to their classroom. We have individuals who just like to read Mark Twain that come back. We have people that I think just realize they were close to Hannibal and something in their mind clicked and said 'Mark Twain,' and perhaps don't have a real reason for being here other than there was something that appealed to them out of their memory that brought them here."

Add to that the hordes who will see Ken Burns' movie and flock here, and I began to worry that Hannibal might be in for a flood. Can there be such a thing as too many tourists? Will Mark Twain's hometown be overrun with picnickers?

I asked Ila Woollen at the Boyhood Home, and she winked at me, she really did.

"Oh," she said, "I think we can handle it."

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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